The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Stephens calls game in Illinois soccer senior day thriller versus Pepperdine

Angel Saldivar
Midfielder Sydney Stephens focuses on her performance on the field against Loyola during a gloomy Sept. 11, 2023. The Illini secured a senior day victory against Pepperdine on Sunday.

After an extensive five-game road trip, Illinois soccer returned home on Sunday to compete in front of the Illini fans for the first time since Aug. 17. The stands of Demirjian Park were full as the squad got set for a senior day clash against Pepperdine on a sunny day in Champaign.

“It feels fantastic (being back at home),” said senior goalkeeper Julia Cili. “Having family here, being in this environment, being captivated in all this energy from the stands, it’s awesome. God is so good, before the game we were all just praying, getting together and we really delivered. The energy was high, we wanted to get that win and we did everything possible.”

Ten players were honored, including seniors Julia Cili, Makala Woods, Mackenzie Schuler, Zoey Kollhoff, Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal, Julia Eichenbaum and Kennedy Berschel; with graduate students Makena Silber, Bel Rolley and Ashley Cathro also celebrating their final seasons with the program.

“Every class leaves their mark,” Rayfield said. “This class is no different, I think we celebrated 10 individuals today who all have something unique about them. If we can just take a piece of that, a little bit of their uniqueness and it’s already woven in the fabric of this program until we’ve been here for all infinity. That’s what’s really cool about our program, it’s made of the little bits and pieces of every player, every trainer, every coach and every fan who’s been a part of it. We carry it with us and especially these seniors here today.”

The match kicked off to a rough start for the Illini as the visitors broke the deadlock just 10 minutes into the game. The Waves were first to the ball off a corner for the early 1-0 advantage. The Illini didn’t falter, however, and continued pushing for an equalizer. Graduate student forward Silber nearly found it in the 22nd minute, forcing a great save after a long-range attempt.

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In the 33rd minute, great linkup play from the Illini led to senior forward Woods laying it off to junior midfielder Sydney Stephens in the box. Stephens coolly slotted it into the bottom left corner to get the Illini on the scoreboard. The two sides remained deadlocked heading into the break, with the sea of orange at Demirjian Park hungry to witness a winner.

“The atmosphere here cannot be beat,” Stephens said. “We’re really happy to be home, we have a limited amount of home games so when we’re here we know it really matters. We want to do it for our fans and the people who support us.”

Cili starred in the first half, making five big saves and pulling off crucial blocks in one-on-one situations. She finished the game with nine saves, as her heroics continued in the second half. Pepperdine had numerous opportunities from point blank range squandered by the senior goalkeeper, which ended up being crucial to the game’s final result.

Illinois earned a penalty kick in the 54th minute after a handball in the box. Senior midfielder Berschel stepped up to take but had her penalty saved; however, sophomore forward Sarah Foley was there to clean up and put the team ahead 2-1.

The Waves weren’t finished yet and equalized in the 73rd minute. Another breakaway saw the Waves finally beat Cili one-on-one to set up a nervy conclusion to the match.

Both teams fought to find the winner to no avail until the 88th minute of the contest. Berschel managed to find Woods on the wing after a great long ball, with Woods squaring it into Pepperdine’s box. Up stepped Stephens, who fired it home to send Demirjian Park into an absolute frenzy. The late winner capped off an exciting senior day victory in Champaign for the team’s most dramatic finish in 2023. Final score: Illinois 3, Pepperdine 2.

Stephens shined on the offensive end for the Illini as a constant presence in the attack. With two goals against the Waves, the junior played an instrumental role in turning the game around after the early one-goal deficit.

“We’ve been talking about near post runs for so long and how important they are,” Stephens said. “I think we just saw in (both goals) how important near post runs can be. I was just there to tap it in, but at the end of the day my teammates did the work and got it where it needed to be in front of the goal.”

Illinois (4-2-1) is off to a strong start in 2023 and will begin its Big Ten campaign next Sunday with a trip to Iowa City. The Hawkeyes (6-0-1) will serve as a tough test for Rayfield’s squad, but a prime opportunity to begin conference play on a high note. In the meantime, the Illini have reason to celebrate with a memorable senior day in the books.

“This program, it’s a family away from home,” Cili said. “It’s somebody who challenges me, challenges me to be better and seeing everybody and being able to love this team is an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.”



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About the Contributors
James Kim, Sports Editor
My name is James Kim and I’m a senior studying English with a minor in business. This is my third year with The Daily Illini and it’s been an amazing ride so far. When I joined in fall 2021, I began as a staff writer for the sports section where I covered women’s tennis. In spring 2022, I became an assistant sports editor and started covering soccer and Illinois men’s basketball. From spring 2023 onwards I’ve been working as the sports editor! In addition to being an Illini and Real Madrid fanatic, I also love watching movies and TV shows. If you have any questions about writing for The DI, you can reach me at my email below. I-L-L!
Angel Saldivar, Assistant Photo Editor
Hey there, you might recognize me as the photographer who's often at community events in Champaign-Urbana with a camera in hand. I'm currently finishing my Journalism degree at the University of Illinois. Since my first year in 2020, I have been capturing moments for the Illini Media Company, and I've recently become the Assistant Photo Editor. Filmmaking is another passion of mine – shoutout to my film club Illini Film and Video! Keep an eye out, as you could see me filming the next big hit on campus. When I am not using the camera, I am usually playing the drums. Should you have any inquiries, please don't hesitate to send me an email!
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